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Inttranews Special Report: Betty Cohen, President of the International Federation of Translators

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Although Betty Cohen is widely known as the non-stop, hard-working President of the International Federation of Translators (IFT), the role of the Federation is less familiar.
Inttranews decided to find out more about the objectives of the IFT and the obstacles the Federation has to face, as it prepares its 27th congress to be held in Tampere, Finland in August 2005.

Inttranews: When did you become president of the IFT?

Betty Cohen: At the last three-year Congress of the IFT, held in August 2002.

Inttranews: How did you obtain the position?

BC: The members of the Council of the IFT are delegated by their national associations. They are elected by the statutory Congress, which meets every three years. Once it has been convened, the Council elects the Bureau from among its members. I have been the treasurer of the IFT for six years, i.e. two mandates. I am now the President, for one mandate only, since I reached the maximum of three mandates as a member of the IFT Council.

Inttranews: Is it a full-time job, or do have you another appointment?

BC: No, it is not a full-time job and it is entirely voluntary. I have another appointment. I have just accepted the general management of the translation departments of the Pricewaterhouse Coopers chartered accountants firm in Montreal.

Inttranews: Can you describe a "typical" day in the life of President of the IFT?

BC: Being the president of the IFT means being available, especially for e-mail. My day starts by reading the e-mail I receive from my colleagues in the IFT and others. I answer immediately as far as possible. I dedicate approximately 30 to 45 minutes to that task very early in the morning, so that I can answer e-mail from Europe the same day. I then leave for my office where I devote my time above all to my employer. When I return home at the end of the day, I sometimes work one or two hours on the files of the IFT, but I do that more readily on Sundays, with a fresh and more relaxed state of mind. My work for the IFT takes up about 4 to 8 hours each week.

Inttranews: How do you see the role of the IFT in such a fast-changing world?

BC: The IFT primarily acts as a federator. It could and would like to do more, but it cannot for lack of funds. However it is a great meeting point for exchanging viewpoints, taking from one and giving to others, helping smaller associations not to reinvent the wheel, for example. In short, its role is to inform and pass on, so that all its members can benefit from the experience of others.

It can and must also make a stand and guide its member associations on issues that affect the profession, such as quality standards, tools, copyright and many other subjects.

This role is all the more important in such a fast-changing world, because the planet is getting smaller and translation has an increasingly important, even vital role upon it. Without us, few things would happen in the world and it is high time that people realised it and gave translation its rightful due. The way I see it, we are like tap water: it is only when there is none left that people realise how vital it is. It is up to us to make that known.

Inttranews: What are the objectives of the IFT?

BC: The objectives of the IFT are clearly stated in its articles of association. The principal objectives are as follows:

a) to bring together translators’ associations and to support exchange and co-operation between them;

b) to initiate and support the creation of associations in countries where there are none;

c) to set up links with other organisations dedicated to translation or other aspects of interlinguistic and intercultural communication;

d) in general, to defend the moral and material rights of translators in the world, to make their profession better known and appreciated, to improve their status within society, and to clarify public opinion about translation as a science and an art.

Inttranews: What are your main obstacles, and how do you intend to overcome them?

BC: Our main obstacles are the distance between the members of the Council and the Bureau, which makes action difficult and slow, and above all, our financial resources. The IFT depends on contributions from members and our budget is very limited, hardly enough to cover our operating expenses and the publication of a news bulletin. All of our activities must be self-financed. That is possible when we organise a conference or a congress, much less so in the case of longer-term projects.

Inttranews: If you could modify something in the operation of the Federation, what would you do?

BC: I have tried, since my first mandate as treasurer, to organise certain functions and make them systematic in order to make them more effective. With the assistance of my colleagues, all the administrative functions have been "streamlined", to use a management term.

Today, given the financial resources available to it, the IFT has every interest in using new technologies and the Internet to establish links with and between its member associations. The future lies in technology and we are gradually adopting new ways of doing things, without forgetting however that some of our member associations are less affluent than others, and that access to technology is unequal from one country to another.

Inttranews: In your opinion, what changes have been beneficial for translators since you have been president?

BC: I have not been president long enough for things to have changed that much. But it is obvious that over the last ten to fifteen years, technology has become increasingly useful for us. Translation-aid tools and the Internet are inexhaustible source of documentation at our fingertips, not to mention globalisation - all of these changes are beneficial for translators… as long as we know how to use them. Because technology is a double-sided blade.

Inttranews: What deteriorations in the working conditions of translators have occurred in recent years?

BC: That is the other side of the blade! Technology has brought speed in execution, therefore more stringent demand from customers. Translation memories have created a new form of exploitation of translators by agencies without scruples. Globalisation has created new competition. All these factors and others are a real danger for professionalism and for quality of service above all. Hence the need for translators for combine forces in organisations such as the IFT, which is capable of acting on an international scale because it is recognised by the other international organisations.

Inttranews: As in other branches of industry, there is a growing movement of "alternative" associations of young interpreters and translators, searching for a more just world. Can the IFT take into account their hopes and expectations, and satisfy them?

BC: No doubt, if they tell us what they are. But to do so, the IFT must move into the 21st century and become more proactive, which we are trying to do with the means at our disposal. We are making headway slowly but surely.

On a personal level, I would like these young associations to join the IFT, because they would help rejuvenate the organisation, and that is something we need.

Inttranews: Every year, some interpreters and translators are indicted by the authorities of their countries, simply for doing their job. Should and does the IFT make a stand in these cases?

BC: The IFT does not have the authority to intervene in the countries concerned, but we always provide our support wherever we can, in particular when a member association is concerned. In those cases, we advise and support their action. We intervene as far as possible.

Inttranews: There is a significant gap between the quality and certification standards adopted by interpreters’ and translators’ associations: what is the IFT doing to harmonise them?

BC: That is one of the projects closest to my heart. At our forthcoming world congress in Tampere (Finland) next August, we are going to devote a series of workshops to quality standards and explore what is being done in the world. The IFT does not have the authority to impose standards, but it can establish them so that member associations can use them as a basis when they establish their own. If we succeed in publishing our "IFT standards", I am convinced that the other national and international organisations will refer to them without trying to set up others. Harmonisation will come with time.

Inttranews: In the same way, there are very broad discrepancies between the royalties obtained by the translators. What is the role and the weight of the IFT in harmonising them?

BC: The IFT represents translators at world organisations defending copyright issues such as the WIPO. We make our voice heard. We also inform our member associations as much as possible about copyright issues during our conferences and congresses. But the fact remains that copyright articles figure in the laws of certain countries, in particular the signatories of copyright conventions, and it is therefore up to each association to check the laws in its country and to ensure they are applied.

Inttranews: Given the expansion of translation memory software and other computerised systems, how do you see the future for translators?

BC: Translation software and memories are tools and must remain at the service of the translator. Unfortunately, all too often they escape our control and are used for profit by companies to exploit translators. Translators must learn to master these systems, not only in terms of their use, but more specifically in terms of their commercial applications. For the first time in history we have tools that can help us increase our profitability: it is up to us to benefit from them, not our customers. Have you already seen a company that passes on reduced costs to its customers? No. They increase their profits. That is as valid for a multinational as for a one-man business.

The future will be brighter if translators become genuine entrepreneurs and recognise their own value in society and the economy of their country. The rest will follow on.

Inttranews: What counter-measures can translators adopt in relation to these changes?

BC: One counter-measure is to come together and fight as one, given that the general good is to our individual benefit. It is only through collective action that translators will be able to avoid the cutting edge I referred to earlier. Translators’ associations are there for that purpose. That is their primary role.

Inttranews: Given the cultural, economic and therefore political importance of translation, do you think that governments sufficiently support their translators and interpreters?

BC: No, not at all. To support them, governments must recognise translation as a fully-fledged profession with all the rights and duties that that entails. I say "duties", because in return we have a certain number of professional and deontological responsibilities.

Inttranews: If you could change something in the translation industry, what would you do?

BC: I shall primarily focus on gaining public recognition of our profession. By public authorities on the one hand and the public on the other. I sincerely believe that it will only be when our work is recognised as a genuine liberal profession throughout the world and we have the means of making the general public understand its importance that we shall finally be able to breathe more easily.

To do so, we must focus on others, but also on ourselves. We must have standards, a deontology, and above all pride in what we do. It is all a question of image and self-confidence.


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